The lingering shadows of WWII
CNMI still littered with unexploded ordnance
By Bea Cabrera
Saipan— Sandy Staffler, a hiker, knows the ins-and-outs of the jungles on Saipan, where she often finds remnants of WWII lying around among the trees and exotic plants.
“When I come across any WWII explosives, my first response is to let my hiking partners know the location of the explosives, especially if they are located on the trails we trek on,” she said. “Saipan jungles and caves still have a vast amount of war relics lying around and more so when you dig.”
The CNMI was an integral part of WWII. The Battle of Saipan, which was part of Operation Forager, went on from June 15 to July 9, 1944, leaving millions of pounds of munitions and explosives in the end. Seventy-eight years later, these deadly souvenirs of the war that killed thousands remain scattered around the commonwealth islands, posing threats to public safety.
“Hand grenades, bombs, and mortars are the most common explosives to be found in Saipan jungles,” Staffler said. “I enjoy taking pictures of any WWII memorabilia that I find.”
Fully aware of the extreme danger they pose, Staffler leaves the explosives where she finds them. “However, there are times we move them to the side to prevent others from stepping on them,” she added.
The Department of Defense and local authorities have been working together to recover tons of exploded ordnance (UXO) on Saipan, Rota and Tinian. The areas marked for clearing are identified through the maps and crash sites, if not based on personal accounts of residents and veterans who survived the war. Some are also found at several construction sites that are not marked on military records.
According to protocol, when an unexploded ordnance is discovered, it is reported to the Department of Public Safety and then to the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, which in turn reports to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team on Guam. A team flies to Saipan to detonate the UXO.
In 2018, the fire department in tandem with the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Defense Group recovered more than 200 pieces of WWII ordnance from a hotel construction site in Chalan Lau Lau. The following year, the fire department, working with the U.S. Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 5, Detachment Marianas, detonated approximately 1,000 UXOs.
The fire department estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 pieces of UXOs were recovered around Saipan in the last months of 2018 and early months of 2019. Some were found on Beach Road, which was the American troops’ point of entry in 1944.
Last month, 2,000 munitions and explosives were recovered from HOPE Recovery Center's 14-acre compound in Marpi following the completion of an initiative to clear the area of hazardous materials. The ordnance found at the site posed a threat to the residents and staff of the recovery center, which houses the CNMI Substance Abuse Addiction and Rehabilitation Program.
According to a report prepared by Lt. Col. Eric Marshall, commander of the Honolulu District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with UXOs approximately 76,000 lbs. of random debris were remediated and moved to the recycling facility during the clearing process called "time-critical removal action.”
Marshall led the team that cleared the Marpi property.
For some, collecting war relics is a hobby. Fabian Indalecio, a veteran, has been collecting war relics since the 1990s. “I do my research, read maps to determine sites and follow the same process after I retrieve relics,” he said in an earlier interview.
Retrieving war relics comes with a responsibility, Indalecio said. “As for safety, especially when I find explosives, I assess the condition and report it to the Department of Public Safety,” he said. “When somebody brings a WWII relic to me, I redirect them to DPS. They clean those, take them to Marpi, and have the Navy ordnance team come over to get rid of them.”
Joey McDoulett, an Army enlisted and judge advocate general, knows munitions and explosives all too well. “Munition involves everything from guns, small revolvers, medium rifles, automatic rifles, special arms, artillery guns, missiles and bombs,” he said. “The munition is pretty inclusive while explosives are those things that blow up, not that shoot out like land mines.”
Having deployed to Afghanistan, McDoulett worked on the ground, equipped with 40 lbs. of gear that includes munition and explosives.
“Explosives require specially-trained people to handle and dispose of them. They may seem harmless because they have been laying around for almost 90 years, but they aren't,” he said. “I am very happy to have to hear about our EOD teams finding and properly disposing of those when they find them.”
As a dive instructor, McDoulett sees munitions and explosives underwater as well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these munitions slowly degrade into the environment and can detonate if disturbed. Explosions also disperse chemicals into the air, soil, surface water, sediment, and groundwater.
“We see the phosphorous grenades and other shells from the war. We just make sure everybody knows to leave them where they lay because first, they are not exposed to oxygen at the bottom of the sea so it is a hazard to bring up,” McDoulett said. “Phosphorous will immediately burst into flame upon exposure to oxygen. Once it starts burning, it can't be put out.”
He explained that explosives tend to become less stable as they age. “So they are more likely to combust or explode when exposed to oxygen, heat or impact,” he added.
In 2017, Chiget Beach on Tinian was closed off following a survey that showed potential hazards to the public due to the presence of UXOs. It was reopened to the public in December last year.
“Clearing areas of UXOs is a big deal for both federal and local partners,” U.S. Army veteran Brad Ruszala said.
“The federal government provides great training. This is put to good use. The work definitely goes on for everybody’s safety.”
Clearing the remnants of war is an ongoing process and it might take a while to complete this task. There are more UXO scattered “not just in the CNMI but all over the world,” Ruszala said. “This is one of the legacies of WWII.”